Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Happy Birthday, Bugs Bunny!

Bugs Bunny is my favorite cartoon character. His career has included winning an Academy Award, being honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, and being adorned by millions of fans throughout the world. His beginnings, however, were less than auspicious.

Bugs Bunny made his screen debut in "Porky's Hare Hunt," which premiered on April 30, 1938. Bugs appeared, unbilled, as the nemesis of hunter Porky Pig. "Porky's Hare Hunt" was not supposed to be anything special. The story was a retread of "Porky's Duck Hunt" from the year before. Percival "Porky" Pig, Warner Bros.' biggest star at the time, was not happy that the 1937 feature had been "stolen" by "that newcomer with no talent," the rising star Daffy Duck (real name Percival Mallard). Pig insisted that the film be redone, so director Ben "Bugs" Hardaway agreed to re-make it, this time with a no-name contract player as the supporting actor.
"Porky's Hare Hunt"
Happy Rabbit, as he was known at this time, had come to Hollywood from the Bronx, hoping to make it big in Pictures. He was a multi-talented rodent, a veteran of Vaudeville who could sing, dance, and tell jokes. He followed in the footsteps of his old Vaudeville partner Eli Fuddelstein, who had made the trek to California several years earlier. Happy Rabbit hoped to get bit parts at Disney.

"Porky's Hare Hunt" began filming on March 14, 1938 and right away there was tension on the set. Porky, who had been trained in Shakespeare and was known to stick strictly to the scripts, reviled the upstart who ad-libbed at every opportunity. When he complained to the director, "Bugs" Hardaway, Hardaway promised Porky that the r-r-r-rabbit" would be cut from the film as much as possible. However, Hardaway knew funny, and in the editing room he decided to keep Happy's scenes and to cut Porky's.
Time-lapsed photography shows the make-over from Happy to Bugs
The public reaction to "Porky's Hare Hunt" was astronomical. Leon Schlessinger, producer of WB's Looney Tunes comedies, wanted more. Happy Rabbit was used again. Still unbilled, he appeared as a magician's pet in the 1939 comedy, "Presto Change-o." When this showed that Happy Rabbit could carry a picture without Porky Pig anywhere near him, Schlessinger famously declared, "Get me Bugs' bunny!" meaning, of course, the rabbit that had worked with Ben Hardaway.  Happy was given a long-term contract, a complete studio make-over, and a new name.

Happy Rabbit went along with the studio, insisting on only one condition: that he be given the chance to team with his former Vaudeville partner, now going under the name of Elmer Fudd. Although Porky Pig was offered the role of "Hunter" first, he had by this time woken up and smelled the bacon. Porky didn't realize it at the time, but his greatest days of fame were behind him. When he declined, the stage was set for the greatest comedy duo since Laurel & Hardy.
"A Wild Hare" made its debut on July 27, 1940 and the rest is history.

"Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!"
(What's Opera, Doc?)
During his long and illustrious career Bugs showed his range by doing straight adventure (usually with Elmer or his other good friend and golfing buddy "Yosemite" Sam Debinowitz), Westerns (with comedic genius Wile E. Coyote), opera ("What's Opera, Doc?" and "The Bunny of Seville"), classical music ("Baton Bunny" and "Long-Haired Hare"),  and science fiction (with that tempermental foreign actor, Marvin T. Martian). He won the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Animated Character in 1958 for "Knighty Knight Bugs."

At his peak, Bugs Bunny commanded star billing, script approval, and all the carrots he could eat.
Ken Harris' marvelous SFX

His greatest film achievement was probably the epic three-part tragedy, "Hunting Season," better known by their chapter titles: "Rabbit Fire" (1951), "Rabbit Seasoning" (1952), and "Duck! Rabbit, Duck!" (1953). This trilogy was originally written as a reunion/come-back film for Bugs' former co-star Elmer Fudd and fading star Daffy Duck. Elmer had been replaced in the hearts and minds of fans by openly gay Australian actor, Tasmanian Devil, and had actually entered semi-retirement by this time. Daffy, on the other hand, was desperate for another hit. He was ravaged by too many wild nights and two ex-wives. Although director Chuck Jones was able to draw out wonderful performances from his three leads, Bugs would comment in his autobiography (50 Years And Only One Gray Hare) that it had not been a happy set.

"The Looney Tunes Show" in 2011
Then the heydey of animated features ended. In 1960 Bugs led his reportory company into television, where they performed live skits to introduce their classic films to another generation of fans, including this reporter. They were an immediate success and became a TV mainstay for more than 20 years.
From the 1980s, WB did not renew their contract and Bugs was relegated to parades, amusement park appearances, the odd summer stock, Vegas, and Branson. He and his friends were cast aside for younger "talents" such as The Animaniacs and Tiny Tooner Buster Bunny. From the 1990s they appeared with Michael Jordan and Brendan Frasier in live-action movies, slowly trying to crawl back into the public's eye. Then in 2010 the troupe became contract players with CARTOON NETWORK. Their situation comedy "The Looney Tunes Show" is currently in the second year of production.

Here's the (mostly fictitious) biography of Bugs Bunny "What's Up, Doc?" produced by Warner Bros in 1950, directed by Robert McKimson

No comments:

Post a Comment